Bell Fund marks 20 years with a new mandate

From Playback magazine: With a new directive from the CRTC, the funder had to overhaul its programs and adapt to an ever-changing industry.
my enemy my brother

The Bell Fund recently marked its 20th anniversary with the biggest overhaul in its history. This new directive from the CRTC was not something fund administrators and many industry stakeholders had expected, but it has set the organization on a very different path.

In its 2016 policy framework for Certified Independent Production Funds (CIPFs), the CRTC restricted the Bell Fund – and other financing bodies that receive BDU contributions – to spending a maximum of 10% on “new media,” re-defined as “non-programming digital content.” In other words, from now on most supported projects will be linear video.

This reverses the way the Bell Fund had previously been operating, where approximately 80% of funding went to a digital company to create “non-programming” apps, games and interactive web content that complemented a TV show. The rest went to the broadcast property.

Over its lifespan, the Bell Fund has spent $200 million on the development and production of some 2,000 digital media and TV projects, and has grown from doling out around $3 million in its first full year to a peak of $21.3 million in 2016.

The fund appealed the CRTC’s recent decision, arguing that whereas it spent $14 million overall on interactive fare in 2016, that figure would drop by 90% under the new scheme – a devastating decline for the digital sector. The regulator, however, ultimately denied the appeal.

But Bell Fund executive director Nancy Chapelle remains positive in the face of upheaval. “Change is always good. It was a fairly dramatic change, but the industry is resilient and we have to take the bull by the horns and move forward,” she says. Toronto-based Chapelle, who took over from founding executive director Andra Sheffer in 2014, previously served as TVO’s managing director of content and programming.

The Bell Fund launched on September 11, 1997 as the Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund. The CRTC had allowed Bell to embark on interactive broadcasting trials in Ontario and Quebec, provided it invest $12 million over two-and-a-half-years for multimedia work by producers in those provinces. The idea was to bring together broadcasters and digital companies to produce web content, and the fund championed innovation.

“Knowing audiences were migrating more online, there had to be content there for them,” says Sheffer, who was handed the keys to the fund based on her experience running the Independent Production Fund (IPF), which currently supports digital series, and the Cogeco Fund, which supports TV drama. She remains CEO of both.

The international awards we and our Canadian peers have won show our country is a world leader in the digital space. The Bell Fund has been more than an instigator, they’ve been a pillar for ensuring this success.
– Matt Hornburg, co-CEO/executive producer, marblemedia

“The idea of the Bell Fund was to make content online that would drive audiences back to television and vice versa—make it a big circle so the broadcasters wouldn’t be losing audience,” she continues. “In fact, the online activities would enhance their audience.”

In 1999, the fund was recognized as a CIPF that could receive BDU cash. Bell ExpressVu – as Bell TV’s satellite service was then known – was obliged to spend on indie production and directed 1% of its resources to the fund, making it permanent and national.

While the early projects are primitive by today’s standards, they blazed a trail. Circa 2000, Decode Entertainment’s website for the Teletoon series Angela Anaconda had users send in a photo of themselves which would be merged onto a digital character and integrated into the action. It also offered games, a 360° exploration of Angela’s community and user-controlled storytelling.

“That was the first project where we saw user-generated content,” Sheffer notes. “Back then that was innovation and the ‘wow factor.’”

Over the years, many of the fund’s biggest successes have come from the kids’ sector. A recent example is the Slug It Out offshoot of the Nerd Corps Entertainment/DHX Media TV series Slugterra airing on Family CHRGD. The mobile game, which is free to download but contains ads and in-app purchases, has seen up to 100,000 downloads a day and an average of 1.2 million monthly users.

There has also always been a firm goal to direct one-third of investment to Quebec producers. From the start, the fund (known locally as le Fonds Bell) has had an office in Montreal run by associate director Claire Dion, who performs double duty with the IPF.

Our first Bell Fund-supported project was for the TV series I Prophesy, featuring multi-player futuristic environments. Then we worked on Storming Juno Interactive, which earned awards and strengthened our relationships with broadcasters and TV producers.
And we won an International Emmy for Endgame Interactive, an online episode allowing users to customize their experience using their Facebook data. None of this would have been possible without the Bell Fund.
– Noora Abu Eitah, executive producer and head of production services, Secret Location

“Everybody was searching for what ‘new media’ was—even us,” Dion recalls of the early days. “At first people were thinking, ‘Is it TV on the web’? Then they realized it wasn’t that. Everybody was exploring. Not long after we started, the new media producers really got into it and that was exciting. We had great projects from the beginning.”

Turbulent Média, for example, is one Montreal digital company that has built its business thanks in part to fund assistance, and it now counts more than 70 employees and exports half its services to the U.S. It experimented with the form in the early days and later serviced the Zone 3/Vrak.TV website for popular rock-band competition MixMania, which includes a voting section, blogs, contestant galleries and live chat.

But, despite these past successes, it was back to the drawing board for the fund.

“We took the revised policy framework to heart and worked with the industry,” Chapelle says. “We had roundtable discussions and got input on where there were gaps. We got feedback on what we were designing and worked with the board to come up with programs that would support the industry going forward.”

And so, last year the fund ended its convergent production and development programs, its performance accelerator and TV development online streams, and introduced four pilot programs in their place.

There is still room for interactivity in the new Slate Development program, which helps producers develop IP for various platforms, with preference shown to those with two or three projects – including non-programming, as long as one project is video. The first round of recipients was announced in April, with $2 million split among 24 prodcos, including Toronto’s Fresh TV, Montreal’s Rezolution Pictures and Victoria’s Drama Camp Productions.

The Webdocs Development program, meanwhile, supports one-off interactive doc projects and awarded grants to the likes of Toronto’s Embreate and Montreal’s Zone 3. This stream continues the fund’s legacy of innovative docs.

One of Chapelle’s favourites is a VR experience tied to Academy Award-shortlisted doc My Enemy, My Brother (pictured) set in a conflict zone in which the player encounters another soldier with unclear motives. Chapelle calls it “a brilliant project that embraces a multi-platform approach to storytelling,” and last year the Bell Fund contributed more than $300,000 to the installation for 75% of its budget.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do the project without it,” says Fathom Film Group producer/director Ann Shin. “Fathom had just opened its digital media arm and we were developing our VR studio. We were able to hire the team we wanted. We’re so grateful to be able to develop this project.”

But, outside the kids sphere, interactivity has become less of a revenue-generator than the fund initially anticipated. It certainly has not become a core business for BDUs and their broadcaster affiliates, and these are the companies that foot the bill for CIPFs.

Sources believe the CRTC changed course in support of broadcasters, which have always been ambivalent about interactive content. Recognizing the threat posed by Netflix and other OTT platforms, the regulator decided support should focus on producing a greater volume of programming as opposed to digital projects that serve mostly as marketing and discoverability tools.
And so, in the traditional broadcast space, the Bell Fund’s new TV Program supports comedy and drama series (up to $250,000 per project) and lifestyle shows (up to $150,000).

Chapelle insists that innovation remains a key criterion for the fund’s project evaluators – comprised of paid industry experts – and its board, which ultimately gives the green light. “They will be looking at the creative, and innovation always comes into the creative, whether it’s a linear property or not,” she says.

TV Program funding is awarded through three separate envelopes dedicated to “major production funders” (MPFs) – which include Bell Media, Corus Entertainment and Quebecor Media – other private broadcasters, and public and educational broadcasters.

The TV Program has drawn criticism from broadcasters including CBC, Blue Ant Media and Télé-Québec, which collectively filed a complaint to the CRTC that the funding processes favour MPFs. The Bell Fund is reviewing the complaint and will file a response with the CRTC by July 10.

We have had dozens of projects receive Bell Fund support. Mohawk Girls, the Canadian Screen Awards, The Bachelor Canada, and Corner Gas Animated have had digital campaigns with which we were integrally involved that include websites, interactive experiences, live digital shows and events.
They pushed boundaries, got audiences talking, projects discovered and fan-bases built.
– Deb Day, CEO and chief strategist, Innovate By Day

The CRTC is allowing video intended for online distribution to qualify as “programming,” which means robust support through the fund’s Short-Form Fiction and Non-Fiction Digital Series programs. Producers may or may not have a deal in place with a digital platform, and that will open the door to new production players. Producers receive up to $150,000 per project and an additional $50,000 towards discoverability.

Producers who lost out with the decline of interactive support may find a new opportunity in short-form video. “We’ve had an overwhelming response to our first non-fiction deadline,” Chapelle says. “We saw new companies and some that were old friends. They were nimble enough to look at their portfolios and decide this was an area they wanted to get into.”

While the Slate Development program received fewer Quebec-based applicants than expected, Dion anticipates greater demand for the short-form video streams, pointing out that the IPF can get as many as 50 applications in the province. Much of this content will end up on websites and OTT platforms owned by broadcasters.

“It’s important because broadcasters take fewer risks on new talent on television,” she says. “So now short form is a kind of incubator of talent where they can test their abilities shooting, directing and producing.”

Chapelle says the fund will go through two or three deadlines for each pilot program before deciding on their sustainability. “Development takes a long time, and we want to see if the investment in pre-development without the requirement of a broadcaster agreement is able to truly move projects forward,” she says.

Above all, she believes that in this era of volatility, the Bell Fund must remain flexible.

“That means being able to respond to changes and working with producers and broadcasters and others in the ecosystem,” she says. “If our programs are not helping to grow the industry, then we need to adapt them to the industry’s needs.”

Image: My Enemy, My Brother